AT A RECENT VIRTUAL RALLY highlighting the need for more opportunities for black, Latino and other minority groups in the cannabis industry, two of the speakers were members of the commission responsible for regulating marijuana in Massachusetts.
Steven Hoffman, the chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission, urged attendees to call US Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren to urge them to support federal legislation allowing banks to provide financial services to the industry. He also told them to call their state legislators to lobby for a bill creating a low-interest loan fund for marijuana start-ups.
Hoffman, a former management consultant and the CEO of a tech start-up, said the push for social equity demands action. “Words are cheap, results are what matters,” he said.
Shaleen Title, a member of the commission, also said it was time for action. “The solutions that have been rooted in the communities that we’re trying to benefit have been pushed forward by legislators and committees, and now it is time for us to make sure that they’re a priority and that we show that we care,” she said.
The comments by Hoffman and Title illustrate how some members of the Cannabis Control Commission are taking on roles that blur the distinction between advocate and regulator. The activism goes beyond routine advocacy for the agency’s budget. Members of the commission – Title in particular – have been outspoken in urging changes to state and federal law.
“It is unusual for a regulatory body to act in an advocacy role on behalf of the regulated industry with either state or federal legislators,” said Paul Levy, a former chairman of the Department of Public Utilities. “You don’t see the insurance commission doing that, you don’t see public utility commissions doing that.”
Hoffman said the Cannabis Control Commission is different because it’s trying to stand up a brand new industry whose product is illegal under federal law. In an interview, Hoffman said he does not see himself as an advocate. “This is not about advocating, this is about getting the help we need as a commission to do our job and meet the legislative mandate that was set for us,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said one reason he spoke at the social equity rally is because the state law legalizing marijuana requires that the commission create opportunities for people disproportionately affected by enforcement of prior drug laws – and a change in law would help the commission do that.
“To do my job, I need help,” Hoffman said. “We need help from the Legislature on several specific things, primarily a loan fund that would help people get capital. We need help from the federal government with respect to the SAFE Banking Act.” (The congressional bill would let banks offer financial services to state-legalized marijuana companies.)
Title is the most outspoken commissioner, frequently speaking at events or rallies organized by marijuana advocates and industry groups. Each seat on the commission is reserved for someone with particular expertise, and Title holds the seat designated for someone with expertise in “legal, policy, or social justice issues” in a regulated industry. She is an attorney specializing in marijuana law who supported marijuana legalization and founded a cannabis recruiting firm focused on equity and inclusion.
Title said activism is part of the job. “I wish that upholding equity and repairing systemic inequities was something that happens easily and takes little effort. It isn’t,” Title wrote in an email. “Part of my job is to be persistent and to continually engage and lift up the perspectives of the people who were meant to be benefited by this law – perspectives that aren’t usually at the table because they have been systematically excluded…Along with lifting up the voices of the people who are affected, speaking up about my conclusions based on that expertise and my many years of engagement is important as well.”
But Title is not alone.
As a commission, the group has written to policymakers many times – recently, for example, writing to members of Congress urging them to let state-approved marijuana businesses apply for federal financial assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Members are also vocal as individuals.
Recently, Hoffman co-authored a Boston Globe op-ed with Title expressing support for bills pending in the state Legislature that would create a social equity loan fund, let the Cannabis Control Commission regulate host community agreements, and let the commission use fees and fines to fund social equity-related training.
Commissioner Britte McBride, appointed to the commission because of her public safety background, actively supported a bill that would have let the state levy civil fines on people operating illicit marijuana businesses.
Not all the commissioners have maintained the same type of public profile.
At a recent public meeting, Title asked the commission to write to the Legislature supporting a bill that would let the agency apply money from fines and donations to a social equity program. Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan, a former state legislator, disagreed with Title’s request – partially because of her different view of the commission’s role.
In addition to voicing concerns about the effectiveness of Title’s strategy, Flanagan said, as a regulatory agency, the commission’s job is to stand up the legal marijuana industry and regulate it, within the guidelines set by law and the budget allocated by the Legislature. “I don’t think it’s our place as an agency to request the Legislature to do anything,” Flanagan said.
Jerry Berger, director of the State House reporting program at Boston University and a long-time observer of state politics, said the Cannabis Control Commission is unusual in its activism, but also in its role, compared to a body overseeing utilities or professions. “Its mandate includes creating equity programs for people and communities ‘disproportionately harmed by prohibition and enforcement of marijuana,’” Berger said, quoting from the law. “That language seems to require advocacy, especially in an environment where there are major players with a lot more resources they can bring to the table.”
Levy said it is common for a regulatory body to report back to the Legislature about changes needed to make regulations more effective or make the industry more vibrant. Regulators often testify before the Legislature about specific bills.
But Levy said he cannot recall other instances where regulators appeared at a public forum or demonstration organized by a segment of the industry. “That would feel awkward to me as a regulator, not because I might not agree or believe in that cause but because I’m sitting there with one group of constituents arguing on one set of issues publicly and in a group where I’m not controlling the whole messaging,” Levy said.
Hoffman, asked about the optics of attending a rally, said he was careful about his own comments, and told attendees that he was there to listen and do his job as a regulator.